The most astonishing account in Hector Feliciano’s always-astonishing new nonfiction book, “The Lost Museum” (Basic Books), follows Adolf Hitler on a visit to the Paris Opera House on June 28, 1940, the Führer’s first, and only, visit to the city. The tour began at 5:30 a.m. The Führer and his entourage had driven directly from the airport to the museum. “Hitler had carefully studied the architectural plans of the building and acted as the group’s tour guide,” Feliciano writes. He asked an attendant if it weren’t true that a salon in the building’s original plans was missing. It was. “‘There, you see how well I know my way about,’ Hitler commented complacently.'”
The thieving and looting that characterized Nazi-controlled Europe only makes sense when you understand Hitler’s lifelong obsession with art. “Can you imagine any current politician sneaking out after a fund-raiser to look at a Rembrandt?” said Feliciano, who was in town last week to promote his book and to speak at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Later, he sat for an interview with The Jewish Journal at a local hotel.
Hitler planned to display his stolen masterpieces in a museum in his hometown of Linz, in northern Austria. Other Nazi leaders, such as Hermann Göring, shared Hitler’s passion, either for Western masterpieces or for their easy liquidity.
The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a government branch headed by Nazi propagandist and official Alfred Rosenberg, seized the art collections of Jews fleeing the country or rounded up for the camps. More than 20,000 works of arts were stolen in this way. After the war, many were returned to their owners, but about 20 percent found their way to auction houses in the United States, private collections, or French national museums.
That’s where Feliciano comes in. The Paris-based journalist spent seven years and much of his own money tracking down the missing artworks of five of France’s leading Jewish collectors and gallery owners, uncovering an unconscionable trail of deceit, willful ignorance and greed. “The more you want to know,” Feliciano said of the French museums he dealt with, “the more they don’t want you to know. They consider it a state secret.”
Fortunately, the U.S. Army retained the photocopies of ERR documents recording looted paintings, and Feliciano spent weeks at the National Archives in Washington, tracing assorted artworks by Renoir, Degas, Picasso and Rembrandt back to their rightful owners.
Feliciano’s book documents the serpentine path of these artworks following the chaos of war. The 2,000 paintings that ended up in some of France’s leading museums were simply stamped “Unclaimed,” and officials made no efforts to find the rightful heirs.
How did those in complicity with the wartime looting think that they’d get away with it? “Everyone thought the Nazis were going to win,” said Feliciano. Many of the paintings were plundered before 1943, when the tide of war turned against Germany.
The nature of the crime and its coverup went undocumented for decades, until the French publication, in 1995, of Feliciano’s book. It was an instant cause célébre. Museum officials challenged Feliciano to public debates, which the journalist, who has degrees from Brandeis, the University of Paris and Columbia, handily won. “They liked these paintings and didn’t want to let go,” he said.
The Jewish heirs hardly pressed the issue earlier. “They were just happy to have survived,” said Feliciano. And, considering the enormity of German atrocities against human beings, the theft of paintings seemed relatively insignificant.
Feliciano, who was born in Puerto Rico to Sephardic parents, has now become a pivotal figure in righting these injustices. He continues to work on the story (so far, his research has neglected all the art looted from countries other than France), and the World Jewish Congress, which has fought governments for the reclamation of looted Jewish gold and bank accounts, will soon join his cause. With Feliciano’s help, Yale University plans to create a repository for archival evidence of the “lost museum.” “Only public opinion will keep the pressure on these governments and institutions,” said Feliciano. “So many [owners] have died, but this is the best we can do.”
If you would like to inquire about the whereabouts of art you think might have been stolen by the Nazis, write to: M. Amigues, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, quai d’Orsay, Paris 75007.
… and Nick Goodman follows in the wake of his father’s quest to find the family’s art collection
Nick Goodman, left, with his brother, Simon.
Nick Goodman knows the truth behind Hector Feliciano’s “The Lost Museum” all too well: His own grandfather’s priceless legacy of French art and German silver disappeared during the war.
Since then, the Goodman family, starting with Nick’s father and continuing with Nick, his aunt and his brother, has tried to track down the long-scattered pieces.
Their most dramatic effort yet will come to a climax next month, when Goodman, a 52-year-old art director and father of three, who lives in the Hollywood Hills, will face off in a Chicago courtroom against pharmaceutical tycoon Daniel Searle. In 1987, Searle purchased a painting by Edgar Degas at a Sotheby’s auction for $850,000. When Goodman’s brother, Simon, found a picture of the landscape in an exhibit catalog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he matched it to a black-and-white photo of his grandfather’s painting. A lawyer sent a letter to Searle, explaining the situation. Searle refused to return the painting or to compensate the Goodmans. The case, which has been featured on television’s “60 Minutes” and in news media around the world, is expected to set a precedent for the return of Nazi-stolen art treasures to their rightful owners.
In any event, it will close one chapter in a long and painful saga of the Goodman family. By the turn of the century, Goodman’s great-grandfather, Eugen Gutmann, had built the second-largest bank in all of Germany, the Bank of Dresden. In order to be accepted into the highest social and governmental circles, Gutmann converted to Protestantism.
Friedrich Gutmann in Paris, as photographed by Man RayWorld War I, Gutmann’s son, Friedrich (“Fritz”), moved to Holland, where he created the Dutch branch of the Bank of Dresden. With the family’s enormous wealth, he bought paintings by Impressionist masters such as Degas and Renoir.
But, by 1938, with war on the horizon, Friedrich sent his paintings to Paris, which, he believed, would never fall to the Nazis. While Nick’s father, Bernard, was, by then, in school at Cambridge, Friedrich and his wife, Louise, remained in Holland. The Bank of Dresden was nationalized by the Reich, and the Gutmanns struggled to survive. Though letters from diplomatic friends seemed to protect them from deportation, Fried-
rich, a Protestant with Jewish blood, was not permitted to work.
Hitler’s minister of the interior, Hermann Göring, coveted the Gutmann family collection of rare medieval German silver. When Gutmann refused to part with it, the train that was supposed to deliver him to his daughter, Lili, in Italy was mysteriously rerouted to Thieresenstadt. There, Gutmann was beaten to death. His wife was murdered in Auschwitz. For several days, Lili went to the station to meet a train that never arrived.
When Goodman immigrated to the United States from England in 1968, he assumed that all his family paintings had been either reclaimed or permanently lost. But his Aunt Lili told him that at least three — two Degas’ and a Renoir — were still at large. Willy Korte, a German expert on Nazi looting, told him that, after the war, most paintings found their way to Switzerland and, from there, to the United States. “He said, ‘Your paintings are probably in America,'” Goodman says. “I was stunned.”
Shortly afterward, a friend, working at the Getty Museum, discovered that the Renoir had been put up for auction by Sotheby’s in 1969. The owners worked out a confidential arrangement with the Goodman family.
Degas’ painting “Landscape with Smokestacks” is at the center of controversy.Following Goodman was hoping that a similar agreement could be struck with Searle for the Degas, which is estimated to be worth at least $1 million. The title of the work is “Landscape with Smokestacks.” “Slightly ironic,” Goodman says, “considering the fate of my grandmother.” That Searle, whose worth is estimated at $500 million, would refuse to part with the painting is “astonishing,” says Goodman, especially considering the fate of its owners.
Meanwhile, the Goodman family took Sotheby’s to court to force the auction house to reveal the names of buyers who purchased other pieces of the Guttman collection over the years. Last week, the court decided Sotheby’s would have to tell.
Although Goodman says that the search for his family’s legacy is costly and time-consuming, he refuses to give up. His father, Bernard, a travel agent, died in 1995, leaving behind extensive notes on the family collection. About 15 paintings are still unaccounted for, including two precious works by Guardi. Goodman says that his own profession makes him especially qualified for the task of tracking the paintings down. “My job is finding strange things directors want, though no one knows where they are,” he says.
“It’s especially important because my father spent 50 years searching and went to his grave frustrated. We’re continuing this search for him.” n